Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4-2003, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

Letter to the Editors
Why are many people in developing countries poor?
The Simple Answer … and a commentary on the question

I recently received a letter from a friend of mine in a developing country. An article from a famous local poet was attached, and in this article the poet offered his explanations for the causes of poverty. The poet found, among other things, the people’s own laziness, their lacking industriousness and the indolence and corruption of the ruling politicians all to be at fault for this poverty. As a solution, he recommended strict and disciplined education, so-called “character-building,” in order to alter the people’s mentality.

The poet clearly gives a false explanation of the causes of poverty, and the solution he recommends is also incorrect. … Nevertheless, I am having trouble answering the question, “Why are the people there poor, or why is there poverty (in developing countries and in industrial countries)?” in a short and simple way. I’ve already tried to do it and often had to start with colonialism, and then had to go on and describe primitive accumulation in Europe, then classical imperialism and the world wars, the emergence of the USA as a world power after World War II, then the role of the dollar as world money and America’s competitive head-start over other capitalist countries, the essence of capitalism itself, then the East-West conflict and the mission of the East Bloc and ‘real existing’ socialism, and then the result: the USA in first place and the role of their money and military… The result: a very long explanation, and I am not sure my discussion partner understood my explanation of the causes of poverty at all, or is willing to listen any further.

Perhaps you could answer the above question in a short and simple manner, so that a normal person as well as a nine year-old child could understand the causes of poverty. Children at a very young age already get to hear such false explanations as that people are lazy, that they are poor “because they have sinned,” because their politicians are corrupt, because the rich people in the industrial countries only think of themselves instead of helping with donations of bread and money, because they don’t have enough democracy, because they don’t save, because they’re not enterprising, etc. …

The Simple Answer


People in developing countries are poor because they are excluded from wealth in general, and in particular in their own countries. The times are long gone in which people had to starve and die because they lacked the means of satisfying their most urgent needs due to crop failures, insufficient mastery of nature, and lacking medical knowledge. Nowadays, people starve before fully-stocked warehouses. Every TV report on hunger crises demonstrates that wealth is certainly at hand: the equipment and transportation of the TV teams reporting on starvation, not to mention the satellites over which these documentaries are broadcast in the metropolises, alone cost much more than it would cost to feed the starving people they film. Even the UN’s Standing Committee on Nutrition reports that there is enough food on the planet to satisfy everybody — and more could certainly be produced in case of need. Therefore, people only starve if they don’t have enough money to buy the food on hand; and the same goes for the less life-endangering forms of shortage such as lack of decent housing, medical care, education and other articles of consumption. What causes this exclusion from wealth? Private property. This legal institution of capitalism is in force these days out to the remotest corners of the world. Every piece of natural and produced wealth belongs to somebody or other. Every bit of the world is ruled by the power of a state that grants some citizens the right to dispose over material wealth as they please, while prohibiting all the other citizens, who also need this wealth, from gaining access to it. If food supplies are continually plundered in Africa, this not only shows that there is indeed something to grab, but also that the starving are prohibited from taking what they need.


The exclusion from wealth that is part and parcel of private property is all the harsher that not only are produced means of consumption in other people’s hands withheld from the poor, but also the sources of wealth themselves, the means of production and thus the instruments of labor with which they could manufacture the things they need themselves. Land as well as produced means of production — workshops, machines and raw materials — all belong to other people, the so-called rich. The separation of people from their means of production may look differently in the various countries of the South, but it always has the same result: nomads cannot continue their way of life if landowners erect fences and states draw borders making the necessary changes of pasture impossible. In other places, smallholders are driven from half-way fertile land for the benefit of extensive mining, dams or plantations that produce for the world market. On the arid, non-irrigated fields that their state allows them to till, just as long as there is no economically powerful interest in them to be found, they struggle for their daily bread without the necessary technology, sometimes without proper tools. In still other places, traditional small artisans, weavers, tailors, leather and metal workers have no chance against the imported industrial products of multinational conglomerates, no matter how cheaply they are prepared to work. They simply lack access to the means of production necessary nowadays to take part in the competition for purchasing power. People like this are without means and helpless. They can’t perform the work they need to acquire the means to satisfy their needs. It obviously follows that the whole thing has not the least bit to do with industriousness or laziness: millions of people in the Third World doggedly struggle for a decent life without any real success. And those who clear out — the famous refugee problem — and land in the slums of the big cities of the North trying to survive likewise don’t exactly show any laziness. They risk their lives to find work, and if they’re lucky, they get mercilessly exploited; when they’re unlucky, they get shipped back again. Others remain in a state of forced inactivity, not because starving is just oh so comfortable, but because their separation from the necessary instruments of labor puts every worthwhile effort out of reach. It is to them that the moralistic educators of the people point when they declare their passivity, dullness and even self-neglect, which result from economic helplessness and insurmountable misery, to be the — self-inflicted —cause of the misery. For this kind of cynicism, it would help to judge others by one’s own standards: nobody could possibly get so lazy as to prefer starving (to death) than making the effort to procure resources — as long as there is a permitted and practicable way of working for the necessities!


For the states of the Third World, the destitution of large parts of their populations is in no way something that hits them; in this case, they suffer nothing they don’t want. When they subject their peoples to the rule of property, they aren’t following any sort of compulsion stemming from colonialism, but rather solely their up-to-date and modern national purpose: for the sake of advancing their power and their wealth, these states cast their lot with the productivity of poverty. They deliberately make their citizens dependent and restrict them to offering themselves to the owners of means of production as an instrument for their profits. Moneymaking through wage labor is to be the people’s sole, permitted livelihood, by which they don’t just feed themselves with their labors, but also have to increase the money invested by the owners of the means of production, from which the state also takes its cut. Whether and to what extent this livelihood actually comes about, well that’s another question. It doesn’t depend on a state’s wishes for as much “employment” as possible, and certainly not on the necessity for job-seekers to earn money. Whether they are offered any opportunities is decided solely by the calculations of those to whom the means of production belong: they let poor people without any means work for them, provided that, to the extent that, and for the wage at which their work increases the owners’ wealth. That is the difference between the poorest subsistence farmer and the modern wageworker: the peasant uses his land and his paltry tools in his own interest, while the wageworker is used for other people’s interests. Neither through industriousness, nor through the willingness to work for next to nothing can people separated from the means of production “compel” others to utilize them. This depends entirely on the owners’ business, which, however it may vary from country to country, is on the whole always of the kind in which only a fraction of job-seekers find employment.


These days at least, the true “employers” are globally active conglomerates. They make worldwide comparisons of the yields they can expect from their investments, and invest everywhere without prejudice from the point of view of greatest returns — and thereby sort the world.

In so-called fourth world countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, etc., international profit interests find nearly nothing exploitable. For this reason, the economic life in these countries is as good as dead; there is no production of necessities and hardly any survival. Of course, even these regions of the globe aren’t dismissed from the world of property, in which everything can, but also must, be bought. A few dollars can still be made there, and one can also do some selling; and land, and whatever else is there, must of course be and remain private property as the condition for any possible future business.

In the countries with the misnomer “developing countries,” business interests are for the most part focused on special natural conditions: capital is invested in the production of citrus and tropical fruits for the world market — the so-called “cash crops!” — in the exploitation of mineral resources, or in the commercial exploitation of scenic attractions via the tourist industry. In these cases, it’s not the national labor power that arouses the interests of international capitalists. Apart from the few people used for mining, working the plantations and serving tourists, the local population is of no use for global business: together with those in the previously named countries, they constitute the absolute surplus population of global capitalism. Local governments are assigned the task by their powerful partners in the North to lock up their vegetating masses in national squalor preserves — in other words, to prevent them from emigrating to the North and becoming a burden for the social service authorities there.

In the so-called emerging markets, international conglomerates definitely discover a use for portions of the population as a source of cheap labor, which they exploit in addition to, or instead of, the labor power found in the metropolises. They outsource part of their production into low-wage countries, exporting the work tempo and productivity they get out of their workers at home, but now paying only the local starvation wages. The “poor” developing countries help out. They combat their state “poverty” by proffering their people to international capital as an unbeatably cheap offer and beat down all resistance to miserable working conditions. And with this service, they attract the investment of foreign capital to their territory. If in such countries an alternative government actually takes power, one that sees national progress differently and has in mind a role for its citizens other than as a cheap offer to international capital, then the coalition of free world powers leaves no stone unturned to wreck these kinds of social “experiments” — by military intervention if necessary. Even in the emerging markets, despite all the wages being kept low with the help of domestic and foreign force, only a minority find regular and regularly paid work. The majority constitute the capitalist reserve army, which has the luck of finding a stretch of employment only in very special phases of economic growth. Or they can count themselves among the absolute surplus population.

All that is not fundamentally different in the vaunted industrial countries. There as well, a portion of the workforce is always unemployed and not only threatened with a descent into squalor, but already there. Even in high-wage countries, poverty is the basis and productive force of the economy. This society openly confesses as much when politicians, leading industrialists and opinion-makers complain about wages being way too high; when they trace all evils — from economic crises and national budget deficits to the bankruptcy of social funds and unemployment — back to high wages, evils that they intend to overcome by lowering wages. The pundits have no problem admitting that the wealth of this society is based on the poverty of the workers. On the contrary, they complain that there is still too little of it.

All over the world, through force of circumstances, the majority of people have the tough luck of depending on a proletarian existence while not being in demand as a proletarian. Capital, with its demand for labor, decides on the life and death of the billions without property. It determines which people have a right to live, because they are used for its profit, and which people are in every valid measure useless, superfluous, and nothing but a burden.

… and a commentary on the question

Hopefully the answer is satisfactory, for the question concerning the “reason for poverty in developing countries” contains a trap — and the difficulty the letter-writer reports of giving a simple answer shows that he hasn’t quite escaped it. That is, it isn’t clear whether it is the reason for poverty, or the reason for especially wretched poverty, that is being asked about. In the latter case, the excess of poverty is taken to be a scandal worthy of criticism, and the reason sought is a reason for a deviation from a standard. This version of the question is popular in the solidarity movement, in anti-globalization groups and in Christian churches with their offertories: “Bread for the world.” Indeed, the difference in health, life expectancy and living standard is of course gigantic: those in the Third World starve while those in the First World watch them on color television — and are glad to be doing fine, comparatively at least. Some wageworkers in the North can even afford to travel in the picturesque poverty preserves and live like lords on their vacation pay. Nevertheless, this doesn’t alter their economic position — which they share with the paupers who serve them on vacation. The difference is based on the identity between them: both can only live when they live for capital. That’s why some earn a wage they get by on after a fashion, while the others starve.

In any case, whoever takes the excessive poverty in the Third World as the real scandal is on an entirely different page. He compares the situations of the victims of capital and finds the divergence between North and South to be unjust. The wageworker in the First World then appears rich because he is being compared with the starving wretches of the Third World; conversely, the wretch appears poor only through the comparison. The protest that lives on this kind of comparison and demands things be evened out turns out to be very humble: it sees the living standard of inexpensive wageworkers as a real, possibly unnecessary luxury — while wishing on behalf of the poor people of the South, with whom it is in solidarity, nothing more than the grim “subsistence” that has been ruined through the penetration of the global economy into their countries. The comparison of poverty here and there, explicitly or not, applies the standard of ability to live or survive — in this world of wealth, in which there could be enough and more than enough of everything.

Therefore, whoever does not declare the extorted living circumstances of wageworkers to be a scandal everywhere, but only deviations of their living circumstances; whoever takes the degree of misery in the Third World to be what needs to be explained; whoever thinks like that distinguishes a normal, functioning capitalism from a deficient, non-functioning, abnormal capitalism in the South, and then asks why the developing countries lack what the North has. Yet nothing is abnormal in all this. Nowhere is it written that capital also has to make use of — at least a majority of — the people it subordinates to its own order to accumulate money; and from a global perspective, that’s the exception anyway. Nothing is lacking in the South for the global economic role it plays in global capitalism, for nothing more was promised than that property would first of all monopolize all the conditions of production and life, and then afterwards see what can be made of these conditions for its accumulation.

If deficient capitalism would be the reason for the especially wretched squalor in developing countries, then capitalism as such gets off the hook. By comparing poverty here and poverty there, one denies the general reason for poverty and forms a rather good opinion of the capitalist system of exploitation, since whoever thinks the South lacks something that would make things as comfortable as in the North also knows already what it is: capital — mankind’s indispensable elixir of life. That is, squalor doesn’t come from the rule of capital, but from a lack of capital. And whoever devotes themselves to the misguided question of why capital doesn’t distribute itself equally over the entire earth, why doesn’t it also bless the South, which needs it so badly, gets carried away by the answer. In counting off special historical conditions that allegedly prevent a “healthy” capitalist development in the South, it is difficult to decide which is the decisive one: colonialism, currency value, bad government, protectionism, the North’s successful head start in world competition? But what does all that have to do with the reason for poverty?

By the way, the comparison can also be turned around. Northern wageworkers get told by their bosses that they are too costly vis-à-vis profits, and that their work is done more cheaply in the Czech Republic, Portugal, and all the more in Southeast Asia. Other peoples work longer and do it for less wages — and that works too! So capital migrates there, and workers have only themselves to blame for unemployment when they’re so inflexible in not reforming their living standards along the lines of the Third World. Meanwhile, the wage level in the North is an aberration demanding correction, and Third World poverty is a model!

Actually, it’s always the same: the capitalist property system makes people unable to provide for themselves; it compels them all to seek their fortune by making themselves useful for capital. While fans of social justice compare the living circumstances under the rule of capital here and there, capital as a practical matter compares the performance and cheapness of the various peoples — in other words, capital plays them off against each other. Only when people are thoroughly extorted by this system, and nobody can live anymore unless they live for capital, only then can the matter be turned around: whoever wants to live needs capital.

© GegenStandpunkt 2004